Cover Story: Welcome to The Kaleidoscopic, Psychedelic World of DJ Tennis
Cover Story: Welcome to The Kaleidoscopic, Psychedelic World of DJ TennisJanuary 21, 2020
10 years after launching Life and Death, DJ Tennis has become a global star in his own right. Theo Kotz hears about the label’s kaleidoscopic new direction, and finds out more about the psychedelic influences of its colourful founder.
“Mmm. Wow, this donut is amazing.” As far as DJ Tennis is concerned, for now, the music can wait. Born Manfredi Romano, Italian DJ and producer is not the type to forgo enjoyment in any form, nor to be distracted from it. He loves a vast spectrum of music, finds immense joy in collecting records and vintage motorbikes, and carries with him culinary passion from his days working as a chef. It’s easy to see that an appreciation for sensory delight permeates everything the multi-talented producer does.
It’s audible in the emotive tapestry that hallmarks his productions, or the joy he finds in collaborative projects like Redrago (with grubby punk-merchants Red Axes); or his long-time association with Luke Jenner of punk band The Rapture. It’s there in the eclectic array he envisages for his record label, which in its first decade was one of the most successful in electronic music. And with a compulsion to put on parties, including an annual festival in Miami, that shows no sign of fading, Romano’s work rate is quite staggering.
Upon meeting in the restaurant of a popular east London hotel, Dixon approaches as we’re sitting down. Romano played Dixon’s Innervisions party the night before. Conversations in a setting like this can feel forced and transactional, but Romano is adept at putting people at ease. He suggests the new arrivals sit with another friend of his, savouring his coffee and the last of the decadent snack, warmly pleased to see everyone.
As we settle in, he tells me about the previous night at the Canning Town venue FOLD, where Innervisions hosted a 24 hour event. He is remarkably fresh considering it was his second gig of the weekend, after playing Circoloco at new London’s newest mega-club The Drumsheds. The makeup he confesses to have slapped on presumably covers any small hints of fatigue, but he is switched on and engaging as we swap stories from the nights gone by.
It comes as no surprise — he is a self-styled natural communicator. DJ Tennis’ success as an artist cannot be separated from that of his label, Life and Death, which helped propel the careers of Mind Against, and especially Tale Of Us, into the stratosphere. The very first release on the label, Thugfucker’s Disco Gnome, spent weeks atop the Beatport singles chart thanks in no small part to Romano’s dedication to getting the tracks in the hands of the right DJs.
“That’s what I did at the beginning,” he says. “I gave it to a full range of artists and said, Listen to this, pay attention to it.’ It’s easy for me because I am a networker… of course it needs to be a good track.” When it was launched in 2010, Life and Death was a reaction to the dominance of minimal in European dance music. It was as style Romano enjoyed at the beginning, but it’s hard to overstate the ubiquity of the sound in the 2000s. Romano wanted to re-introduce psychedelia to the dancefloor.
“The name is about the transition process that is related to DMT breakthrough,” he says with a hint of mischief — and not for the last time. “It’s not really specific, but that’s what interested me in the first place. To find a dimension that is between reality and a dream, between imagination and reason. And I wanted to use vocals, but not classic soulful vocals like in house music. Life and Death started as an electronic indie label, basically.”
This, too, makes perfect sense for Romano. He cites labels like Warp and Domino as examples of what he wants to emulate in his own way, but during his own musical upbringing in the ‘80s, long before he was known as DJ Tennis, he was more concerned with the likes of Black Flag, Wire or The Cure than he was Italo disco or the nascent house scene. These impulses remain — his DJ-Kicks compilation of 2017 was supposed to include Belle & Sebastian, Laurie Anderson and Godspeed! You Black Emperor. Though stringent licensing rules thwarted his plans.
He started out by playing in bands too, drawn to the classic figure of the guitar-wielding frontman. “I wasn’t a very good singer or guitar player,” he admits. “I’m completely self-taught and I have a weird approach. I have a very uneducated way of using a guitar, tuning the guitar strings so it sounded very noisy.” This attitude has always been his modus operandi, something still very much present. “I think the fact that you don’t have musical instruction, in an academic sense, allows you to be more personal.”
He was an early adopter of modern music software, having been gifted the first version of Ableton Live by his friend and Ableton co-developer Robert Henke (who performs as Monolake). But Romano’s degree in computer programming, and the mechanics of granular synthesis, meant his approach was different to the way a musician would use the software. Throughout his career he has striven to avoid getting too comfortable or set in a particular structure.
“Making electronic music isn’t really like being a musician. It’s more like being a sound-sculpter. So what you want is to have something that sounds different, weird, unique. This is what I’m trying to do with production. People are lazy and stick to presets and so things sound the same.” Take his 2019 EP Gordon Starck, released on Gerd Janson’s Running Back imprint. Romano made the record using what he calls “toy synths,” or entry level machines made of plastic that most producers wouldn’t consider appropriate for professional work. But these quirks and challenges gave him room to find fresh takes on music. “I like to start with a white canvas for every track. I’m not sure if this makes sense, but for me, it works.”
He came to electronic music late, having spent many years as a tour manager for guitar bands. In time-honoured fashion, the discovery was aided by a little pill. Gordon Starck even pays homage to ecstasy’s irreducible role in the history of modern dance music. “Ecstasy, not a as a chemical thing, but as a marketed product, was invented in Dallas in the ‘80s, and it was legal,” Romano says. He enjoys telling this anecdote. “My EP is called Gordon Starck because Starck was the club where they gave out pills with the tickets.”
The record is a succinct example of what makes DJ Tennis such a great producer. “Starck” is an irresistible slice of acid Italo marked by teasing, celestial flutters, while the slow-building bounce of “Gordon” has the uncanny knack of digging under the skin and setting up camp. Beatless re-imaginings of each dial up the drama, and the whole EP offers as much to savour as most dance LPs manage across 12 tracks.
It is, however, a 12-inch first and foremost, and these tracks are perfect DJ fodder despite their left-leaning elements. After all, DJ Tennis is as respected behind the decks as he is in the studio. In the last year alone, he’s played huge festivals and dark, intimate clubs on every continent. And even with a global following, he still manages to circumvent expectations.
“I try to be myself as much as I can, but I’m also an entertainer, so I need to find a balance. That’s a challenge I like. I don’t like to meet expectations, and I like when people are surprised. But of course I change. When I played at FOLD, I played one way, and when I played at Circoloco, I played another way. But normally my sets are never the same.” It was refreshing to see him at the latter, liberally throwing down breaksy curveballs when the vast stage and cavernous dancefloor could easily have encouraged him to stick to safer big-room fare.
I suspect he’d be unable to play it any other way. “I’m not attracted by any one direction. When I listen to a DJ, I like it sometimes when sets are extremely predictable and consistent, but I Iike it more when there are a lot of surprises. I try to do the same. What I like, I try to emulate.”
So who might he be emulating today? “Four Tet,” he replies, mulling it over as he gazes up at the ceiling. “Because I really like that he’s trolling everyone.” There’s that sense of mischief again. “Sometimes he’ll pop up and play Paradise with Jamie Jones, or go back to back with Skrillex, and I love that. New generations are interesting [too], because they come out as a reaction to what the status [quo] of music was like a few years ago, so they like to cross boundaries. I really like Skee Mask, Or:la is definitely one of my favourites, and I love HAAi, especially when she goes very weird.” The need to buck trends is something he comes back to again and again.
Romano has been a promoter longer than he’s been a performer, and it remains a key aspect of his life. Focusing on the way a DJ affects the party is one of the reasons he’s so adept at reading a crowd. Today, his primary concern as a promoter is Rakastella festival, which takes place as part of the annual Art Basel fair in his adopted home of Miami.
“I never wanted to be a DJ. It just happened. When I say I’m a promoter first, it’s because that’s the way I approach music. Rakastella is the fruit of the work of a team of 10 people, and their effort to make something happen in Miami. There’s not much like this in the United States in general.” This comes as a surprise; Miami is known as a party destination. But Romano says this is a misconception.
“Miami Beach and Miami are two different cities, technically,” he explains. “Miami Beach is the party place, and Miami is developing a lot. It’s a bit like Manhattan and Brooklyn, and Miami is Brooklyn. There’s a lot of art, and we wanted to plant a seed during Art Basel with the festival, something that didn’t exist — a festival about electronic music, but underground, or of a certain kind. Not like Coachella with the full range or Lightning in a Bottle, which is for trance. It’s growing because there’s a need in the United States. In Europe, we are used to it. You have Gottwood, you have Dekmantel, you have millions of these things.
Romano notes that the festival has nearly reached gender parity. I ask if this is important to him. “Of course, but it’s not just a number. It wasn’t intentional, but it happened, and I’m proud of that. If you can spontaneously reach it, that’s good. Another thing is that we were the first completely plastic-free festival in the United States.”
Romano is close friends with Danny Daze, another figure who has done plenty for the reputation of Miami in dance music, and on whose Omnidisc label DJ Tennis released the skittish collection of murky electro and house called Convex. “We are flatmates in Amsterdam, and sometimes we’ll commute from Miami to Amsterdam together. He’s actually one of my major influences because we both came from IDM, listening to Warp and Schematic. As a DJ we’re completely different though. He’s more of a hip-hop DJ, a Miami DJ. I am not a pure DJ, I come from being a selector in Milan.”
And yet for someone who never intended to be a DJ, here he is. His relentless desire to learn and experiment is continuing to lead him across the globe. Ultimately though, it returns to his social nature. “I like to connect with people, to talk with people, to exchange. It’s important to expand your culture and your curiosity.”
Romano’s primary contribution to this exchange is undoubtedly Life and Death. Now 10 years old, the label has been home to some of Italy’s biggest dance music exports, including Margot and Marvin & Guy, as well as the aforementioned Tale Of Us and Mind Against. Carmine Conte and Matteo Milleri of the former ran the label with Romano in the early days, along with Thugfucker’s Greg Oreck, with DJ Tennis supplying considerable guidance to their early development.
With huge early hype and an ingenious policy of reaching outside of their expected circles for remixes (Photek and Larry Heard featured early in the label’s lifetime), Life and Death met success quickly. And with each member applying a slightly different passion to the project, Romano’s vision of eclecticism was well met. Albums like Clockwork’s B.O.A.T.S. in 2013 are exactly the kind of marriage between melodic electronics and indie you suspect he had in mind, but the success of Tale Of Us’ emotive techno, combined with those differing points of view, perhaps inevitably led to a muddying of the waters.
In 2016, having established themselves among the top tier of global techno DJs, Tale Of Us split from Life and Death and turned their attention to their Afterlife imprint. “Tale Of Us became big, and of course that influenced the label. But still, the mission was to have a full range,” he says, now choosing his words more carefully. “They wanted to have a platform for their career and eventually that became Afterlife, which has a very consistent sound. That’s exactly what I didn’t want and is why I’m back doing it alone.” He then shrugs, putting a point on that line of questioning.
Looking at the label’s catalogue, visually, there is a drastic change in direction around this time. After years of a consistent, monochrome motif with its artwork, Life and Death was suddenly bursting with colour, which hasn’t dampened since.
“I wanted to make a statement,” he says. “I wanted to mark when we split. Afterlife is very consistent with the diving man, so we made the most inconsistent covers we could. But also, we thought we’d saturated one style, so from that monochrome style we opened it up to be more colourful and psychedelic. Now it is very free, open.”
Is this the closest it’s been to his vision for Life and Death?
With Manfredi Romano, you get the distinct impression of a restless mind, and I suspect that without such a broad output, the label would struggle to retain his interest. Thankfully, there’s plenty more in store.
Firstly, there’s his own album, set for release at the end of the year, which he’s mastering in London. He’s also excited to be working with Simone de Kunovich and Kino Todo, two relative unknowns, while Autarkic and Margot are both set for album releases. Plus there’s a whole album’s worth of material already recorded with Luke Jenner of The Rapture. “The 10 years are to mark the maturity of the label and [the point at which it] starts being a label in the classic way,” he says, referring to the mould of those he so often cites as influences. “The mission is to keep searching for new ideas and new talent and bring it on.”
It’s a lot by any label’s standards, and with a touring schedule that shows no sign of slowing, you’d be forgiven for wondering if something has to let up. In an interview with Magnetic Mag just a couple of years ago, he suggested that he couldn’t imagine DJing for more than 10 years, and would likely call it a day before then. He then cheekily requests I ask him whether he’s feeling his age.
I oblige, at which point he erupts with laughter. “No, not at all,” he grins. “I actually think that [DJing] is more important now. It makes me happy and it keeps my brain active. I will do other things, sure. I’m a foodie, I cook and I was a chef, so I will probably open a restaurant, and I’m very passionate about vintage racing bikes. I like to keep doing different things to keep my brain active. And I’m full of things to do, but I think I will DJ and make music until I die.”
Theo Kotz is a freelance journalist living in London. Find him on Twitter.